June 5, 2012 marks the 45th anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War. One of us experienced the war in Jerusalem at the age of 11, and the other in Beirut at age 4, yet it haunts us to this day. The war led to the ongoing Israeli military occupation that has come to define the conflict. It has lessened neither the fears of the triumphant Israelis, nor those of the defeated Arabs; the mindset of confrontation that produced the war still haunts the region.
Despite the military might and economic prowess of their state, Jewish Israelis feel insecure and hesitant to trust the Arab side. They remain traumatized by a tragic history. For some, clinging on to the occupation is seen as a security necessity. For others, it is the fear of losing land that they consider a divine or historical birthright.
The Palestinians, given their historic dispossession and suffering in exile or under Israeli occupation, feel increasingly disempowered and disillusioned, and are rapidly losing hope that a two-state solution will ever be achieved. Given its immoral and indefensible system, the occupation is wrecking their livelihood and lives, and condemns them to live without basic human and national rights.
The State of Palestine remains an unfulfilled promise and seems a distant reality. Peace negotiations, United Nations resolutions, and accords have reached a seemingly impossible impasse. Israeli and Palestinian politicians are not listening to each other. Years of conflict and narratives of struggle and pain mean both national communities are caught up in their own visions and divisions.
A year has passed since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote an op-ed in The New York Timesabout “The Long Overdue Palestinian State.” At the same time, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke, on May 19, 2011, about the need to base future negotiations on the pre-June 5, 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a line in the sand on May 24, regarding the border with a new Palestinian state during his address to a joint session of Congress, outlining a vision that no Palestinian leadership could accept.
The Palestinian people are beleaguered by internal divisions and Israeli oppression. Even though Fatah recently signed a deal with Hamas to hold elections and establish a new unity government for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the rifts between them are so significant that such elections are unlikely to take place. The refusal of Hamas to recognize the goal of a two-state solution and renounce violence remains a major obstacle.
Obama is busy campaigning for a second term. Some hope that a re-elected Obama might adopt a more assertive approach to resolving the conflict. But it is hard to see what will change by then, unless a sudden crisis or opportunity emerges that cannot be ignored.
Netanyahu is now in possession of a new 94-member Knesset coalition of almost unprecedented scope. It seems unlikely that, by joining the government, the Kadima Party will create changes in Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Right-wing political parties — including the settler movement, which are opposed to peace with the Palestinians — remain powerful obstacles to positive change. The new government shows no signs of slowing the settlement expansion program that is threatening the viability of peace.
The United States and the other members of the Middle East Quartet — the United Nations, European Union, and Russia — have pushed for a resolution, but nothing has been realized except some continued, but much reduced, support for the crucial Palestinian institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The Israeli occupation is a result of the conditions of the 1960s. The time for ending it is long overdue — it is right and proper for Israel’s soul and the Palestinian spirit. An independent, contiguous, and secure Palestine — democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized, and neutral in conflicts — living in peace alongside Israel is in the national interest of both Palestinians and Israelis, and the entire world. It, alone, offers a conflict-ending solution. The only alternative is more occupation and, eventually, further conflict.
There is a leadership crisis on resolving the conflict. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that “leaders only change because they either see the light or feel the heat.” If Israeli and Palestinian leaders will not “see the light” and lead, placing political power above national interests, their publics and the international community must work together to force their hands through constructive and cooperative interventions that make all of them “feel the heat.”
The growing Palestinian nonviolent protest movement, often joined by brave and principled Jewish Israelis and international activists, is one such effort. The institution-building program led by Fayyad is another, as many of its effects empower ordinary Palestinians and improves their lives while laying the groundwork for a well-functioning independent Palestine. Failing to build on these and similar efforts to push peace forward from the bottom up will only perpetuate insecurity and a historic injustice, and strengthen the forces of exclusion and extremism.